Magical Thinking

Evil in World Religion, a course at the University of Manitoba was by far the most interesting course I’ve ever taken. I often think about questions it raised, and can apply what I learnt to many other aspects in my life.

Tonight, I set out to write a positive blog about my day – not a word came out, so I will write what I feel like discussing, magical thinking. Before I define it, ask yourself these questions:

  • Could you wear a killer’s cardigan?
  • Why are houses where violent crimes are committed destroyed?
  • What makes your special collector items so special?
  • How would you feel if your friend ripped up a picture of your mother?
  • “I was just thinking the same thing!”
  • Why do your lovers germs seem less gross than a strangers?
  • Do you own something “lucky?”
  • Can you tell when someone behind you is looking at you?
  • Why does a drop of sewage do more to a bucket of clean water than a drop of clean water to a bucket of sewage?

Magical thinking is a human behaviour which can be detrimental in putting our minds at ease, yet is an area of study that remains to be poorly understood. Magical thinking is a rudimentary part of our existence, as it provides the justifications that help formulate beliefs and feelings. It influences many aspects of life, including: hygiene, basic differentiation between “good” and “evil”, purification rituals, and even petty day to day inclinations (such as who we choose to associate with; what we eat). We look for patterns as most people hate surprises, and need to feel in control.

Here are some interesting points taken directly from “Magical Thinking” by Matthew Hutson in Pyschology Today.

• A wedding ring or a childhood blanket could be replaced by identical or near-identical ones, but those impostors just wouldn’t be the same.

• Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania and Nemeroff contend that magical contagion may emerge from our evolved fear of germs, which, like essences, are invisible, easily transmissible, and have far-reaching consequences. Nemeroff found that people draw the germs of their lovers as less scary-looking than those of enemies, and they say those germs would make them less ill. She also found that undergrads base condom usage on how emotionally safe they feel with a partner more than on objective risk factors for catching STDs.

Just as thoughts and objects have power, so do names. Language’s ability to dredge up associations acts as a spell over us. After watching sugar being poured into two glasses of water and then personally affixing a “sugar” label to one and a “poison” label to the other, people much prefer to drink from the “sugar” glass and will even shy away from one they label “not poison.”

Even if things are beyond our control, they happen for a reason. The idea of arbitrary pain and suffering is just too much for many people to bear, and the need for moral order may help explain the popularity of religion; in fact, just-worlders are more religious than others. Faith in cosmic jurisprudence starts early. Harvard psychologists showed that kids ages 5 to 7 like a child who found $5 on the sidewalk more than one whose soccer game got rained out.

Religion aside,  I decided to post this since understanding people is an important component of communication, and even the most irrational of thoughts are important to try and understand.  Could tailoring certain messages used in public relations or advertising work towards magical thought?

Magical thinking is an area of cognitive process that generally does not make sense in terms of contemporary science and stems from principles of similarity and contagion.  The law of contagion is woven into unconscious thought, and involves the implications of who and what we merge with.  It is believed that contact with negative things (e.g., disease, insects, rotting matter) is physically and morally debasing to ones self.

The key element of this law that must be understood, is the belief that everything has an essence or “mana”.  This essence can be transferred through physical contact, the most intimate form being ingestion. The law of similarity is the idea that ‘like produces like’ and rests on the premise that things which resemble another on a superficial level, may also share deeper properties.

For example the use of voodoo dolls, and having a strong preference toward holding a rubber sink stopper in your mouth opposed to a piece of fake vomit. Moreover, these principles provide people with unconscious rationale that results in non sensical behaviour.

Death pollution is described by the Cantonese as “killing airs”, an invisible cloud which they believe emanates from the corpse and contaminates everyone within the vicinity of the body. It must be noted that killing airs come primarily from the flesh of a corpse, rather than the bones. This is because the flesh contains yin essence (same found in women) and bones are comprised of the yang essence (consequently found in males). This can be explained using magical thinking, as the Cantonese feel flesh and bones contain essence that has the capacity to be transmitted through contact. 

 This notion has developed from the fear of death, and gives the funeral a goal of keeping everyone safe from its grip.  Villagers claim that they keep cloves of garlic in their mouths to disguise the smell of death that clings to them. This is contagion at work since the villagers consider the corpse handlers to be of impure mana, and fear their death contaminated souls may pollute them.

Furthermore, magical thinking is undoubtably all around us.  Although the familiar hocus-pocus association with magic is highly recognized, the human behaviours that occurs through magical comfort is what should be taken into account. It seems to work more often than not, and is not something to be afraid of, but requires understanding. It is important to be aware of these thought processes, and by aiming to consciously reduce our untraceable disdain towards something unfamiliar, having an open mind may make the world a more unified place.

Sources for content:

MacKendrick, Kenneth. “Evil in World Religions, Lecture Notes.” University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, September 15, 2011.

Nemeroff, Carol and Paul Rozin. “The Marking of the Magical Mind: The Nature and Function of Sympathetic Magical Thinking.” In Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific, and Religious Thinking in Children. Edited by Karl S. Rosengren, Carl N. Johnson, and Paul L. Harris, 1-34. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Watson, James L. “Funeral Specialists in Cantonese Society: Pollution, Performance, and Social Hierarchy.” In Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China. Edited by James L. Watson and Evelyn S. Rawski, 109-134. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

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